When Sakina Jaffrey began her acting career, she never gave much thought to becoming famous. And over the past three decades, the 1984 Vassar grad has carved out a successful if under-the-radar career on stage and in television and movies. But since she landed the part as the tough, no-nonsense White House Chief of Staff on the hit Netflix series House of Cards, Jaffrey is enjoying her brush with what she calls “the bizarre phenomenon of almost-fame.”
“People recognize my face, but they can’t place me,” she says. “They’ll ask me, ‘Do you go to my gym?’ or ‘Weren’t you at cousin Lizzie’s wedding?’ One woman starting hugging me before she realized she actually only knew me from her TV screen. But I’m enjoying the ride. I’m going to the Emmys [September 22], and who doesn’t like that?”
The show, which stars Kevin Spacey as a conniving, power-hungry politician, was nominated for nine Emmys, including Outstanding Drama Series as well as Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series and Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series awards for Spacey and Robin Wright. Jaffrey says she isn’t surprised by the show’s success.
“Our first table-read was electric with Kevin and Robin, really interesting L.A. actors, and then, of course, the crème de la crème of New York theatre actors,” Jaffrey says, adding that executive producer David Fincher told all the actors gathered there were his first choices for the roles.
“Of course, you can never really predict how a show will be received, but with David and those actors, and the exceptional writing, my expectation was that this was going to be a really cool show,” she says.
It was such a hot project that Jaffrey says she was really just happy to be seen for the role and had no further expectations. Her initial audition with the show’s casting director led to a half-hour “work session” with Fincher, famous for doing dozens of takes of scenes. She performed the first scene five or six times well. But whether it was nerves or exhaustion, she had trouble understanding Fincher’s direction for the second. “My mind was mush and I thought, ‘I have no idea what this man is saying to me.’ I left feeling slightly disoriented but happy just to have been in that room, and ready to move on to the next audition.”
About a month later, Jaffrey’s manager informed her that she was in strong contention for the role. Contracts were drawn up and that tape of her “work session” was sent to be reviewed by Netflix executives and House of Cards producers. A short time later, she was notified that she had landed the part of Linda Vasquez, the president’s Chief of Staff. She says playing Vasquez is a thrilling challenge.
“Linda has her job not because of her feminine wiles but because she’s smart as a whip, has a sense of the big political picture, and is totally focused on protecting the president,” she says. “I’m a much friendlier, easygoing person than Linda. I usually do comedic or empathic roles, so this power role was something a little different.”
Now in the midst of shooting the show’s second season, she says she’s still thoroughly enjoying her interaction with Spacey.
“Kevin’s ridiculously smart and talented and hardworking, but he’s also a delightful ham and clown,” she says. “But when the cameras start to roll, you could not find a more professional actor.”
A Chinese Language and Literature major, Jaffrey took an introductory theatre class at Vassar and fondly remembers a set design class but never did any acting at school. “I felt like I shouldn’t waste my parents’ money studying to be an actor. But after I left college and considered the careers I could pursue, I realized I couldn’t pretend I wanted to do anything else but act.”
She began her career in New York City after she graduated from Vassar, taking acting lessons and going to auditions while supporting herself the way many young actors do: “I was a waitress—and a damn good one.”
Jaffrey took classes for about two years before auditioning for her first role, but once she joined the profession, she always seemed to have enough work. The pace was steady enough, but she also had time to start a family, raising a son (now 18) and a daughter (now 15) with her husband, Francis Wilkinson, a journalist who covered
Washington as a political correspondent for Rolling Stone magazine in the 1990s. “That experience gave me a taste of the darker side of politics,” Jaffrey says, “and, obviously, House of Cards is even darker than that—but maybe not all that far from the truth.”
Jaffrey says that while the financial rewards of being on the show are surprising, he hours are even more so. The shooting schedule for the second season is arranged so that she only has to be on the set in a studio outside of Baltimore four or five days a month, affording her plenty of time to work on a theatre piece she’s writing about the superhuman strength of new immigrants. “It seems as though in this business, the less you work, the more you get paid,” says Jaffrey, who has worked long hours for little pay in many of her acting jobs.
She says she hopes her experience will encourage veteran actors as well as those just starting out in the business.
“Maybe getting this job at my age will inspire older actors to keep on plugging,”
Jaffrey says. “And just remember: If you’re in college and don’t know what you want to do with your life, that’s okay. I look back now and I realize a lot of what I learned at Vassar I applied to my career in ways I could never have anticipated.”
Photos courtesy of Netflix.